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Page last updated at 17:04 GMT, Tuesday, 25 January 2011
St Matthew's Baths re-opens as The Gym Ipswich
By Andrew Woodger
BBC Suffolk

The Gym, Ipswich
Matthew Hickey on the top floor under the building's original skylight

One of Ipswich's former public swimming pools has re-opened as a gym.

The St Matthew's Baths on Civic Drive opened in 1924 and it was also used as a public hall for music acts including Cream and Led Zeppelin .

Abbeycroft Leisure has turned the two-floor building into what it calls an "affordable" fitness centre.

"There are no shareholders that we have to give a dividend back to," said Matthew Hickey, contract fitness manager for Abbeycroft.

St Matthew's Baths, Ipswich
Oil-fired steam boiler heating was fitted in 1964 for 75,000

The gym has 100 fitness machines and standing free weights. Abbeycroft leases the building and estimates it will spend £500,000 on it over its first five years.

Some of the machines feature plug-ins for personal mp3 players and screens which simulate the view as if you were running through US national parks.

Mr Hickey said: "The uniqueness is obviously £12.99 a month which is a model which is starting to grow throughout the country.

"People naturally assume that with lower rates comes low specification equipment, but it's modern, innovative and where fitness is going with more interaction."

Abbeycroft also runs leisure centres in Bury St Edmunds and Haverhill on behalf of St Edmundsbury Borough Council.

Last year it gained social enterprise status and was looking to run its own facilities on a not-for-profit basis.

"Social enterprise status is gained through proving and showing that you look to generate any surplus back into the local community," said Mr Hickey.

"We were blown away by the space itself, its location in the town centre, the vaulted ceiling and skylight and here you can work out in a very spacious area.

"The building was very tired when we came to look at it a year ago and it's taken an enormous amount of work to bring it back up into 2011."

The Move, Ipswich St Matthew's Baths Hall
Roy Wood's The Move at St Matthew's Baths Hall in the 1960s

History

According to Ipswich Borough Council archive newsletters, the original building cost around £27,770 in 1924 and it consisted of a 75 x 30ft (23 x 9m) pool and a balcony for 200 spectators.

Russell Nunn, local historian with the Ipswich Society, said: "The only other facility would have been Fore Street Baths which opened in about 1870 and Stoke bathing place [open air] on the Wherstead Road which was river water with very limited changing facilities.

"There were a certain number of men who would take their dip at Stoke every day throughout the winter months."

The St Matthew's Baths also featured 21 slipper baths for washing in at a time when many houses did not have bathrooms.

During the winter months a sprung maple floor would cover the pool and it was used as a public hall for community events, dances, boxing, wrestling and concerts.

Mr Nunn said: "It was a heated pool, but it must be borne in mind that there were very limited facilities in the town for meetings and other functions.

"It was in very heavy demand between 1957 and the early 1970s because in 1947 the large public hall in Westgate Street (on the site now occupied by Primark) burned down.

"It wasn't grand, but it was certainly very functional.

"It's been hidden away there. With the developments in front of it, it's been completely lost really."

The building was not required as an entertainment centre when facilities became available at the Corn Exchange in the mid-1970s.

It was then used for swimming all the year round until Crown Pools was opened by Ipswich Borough Council.

It was sold to developers, divided into two floors and it was last used as a social club.

Sustainability

Abbeycroft expect the new gym to take off.

"There's no reason we can't aim towards 2,500 members," said Mr Hickey. "The population is ever-increasing and with the other fitness options that are out there, there is sustainability for all of us.

"As a small leisure trust, if we can make this model work, we will certainly be looking at other towns where we could repeat this before the big private chains come in and take over everywhere."

Archive photographs provided by Dave Kindred of Kindred Spirit .

Send us your memories of the baths. Were you at Led Zeppelin's gig?


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Name: Linda Kay
Town: Ipswich, Suffolk
Comments:

Although i didnt go to the Led Zeppelins gig i was unfortunate enough to go to Gary Glitter,only because friends wanted to go. My memories of St Matthews Baths dances are of the floor moving and the records continuously jumping. Good times as at them time of my teenage years there were very few places to hang out.

Name: Norman Finbow
Town: Ipswich
Comments:

My wife Linda and myself were lucky enough to get tickets to see Led Zeppelin at the Baths Hall. I think they were tickets were £1 each. Little did we know when we bought our tickets that the concert would feature music from the now legendary Four Symbols LP. It was a very memorable moment when Robert Plant sat on a stool and sang Stairway to Heaven. Happy memories!




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